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Senate Sets Hearing On D.C. Statehood Bill, First In 20 Years

A bill that would grant statehood to D.C. will be debated in the Senate next week.
Mr. T In D.C.: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/1782961534/
A bill that would grant statehood to D.C. will be debated in the Senate next week.

A Senate committee has scheduled a hearing on a bill that would grant statehood to the District of Columbia, the first open debate on a statehood measure in Congress in over two decades.

The hearing will take place on Sept. 15 in the Senate's Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, which is chaired by Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.). Carper introduced the statehood bill, which would allow D.C. to join the union as the 51st state, in Jan. 2013.

The last time that a statehood bill was debated in Congress was in 1993, when a measure introduced by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton was sent to the House floor after being approved in committee. It did not survive a full House vote, falling 277 to 153 as members of both parties expressed concerns over the constitutionality of granting the city statehood.

But much as in 1993, the authors of the current bill say it is constitutional because it does not eliminate the federal enclave that currently encompasses the entire city, but rather shrinks it to cover only the U.S. Capitol, National Mall and White House.

"The D.C. Clause [of the Constitution] says an area of 10 miles square shall be the seat of government," says Peter Raven-Hansen, a professor at the George Washington University School of Law who testified in support of the bill in 1993. "It doesn't say it can't be smaller."

Still, the bill faces tough odds in Congress. Fifteen of the bill's current co-sponsors are Democrats; the remaining co-sponsor is an Independent who caucuses with Democrats. Support for a partner bill introduced by Norton in the House is similarly lopsided — its 91 co-sponsors are all Democrats.

Witnesses for the hearing have not yet been announced, though people with knowledge of the issue say that staff in Carper's office have been seeking Republicans willing to speak in favor of the bill.

D.C. advocates and city leaders have fought over the years for a voting seat in the House, budget and legislative autonomy, and statehood. They have been stymied by Republicans and conservative Democrats who argue that the country's founding fathers intended D.C. to be a federally governed enclave free from the power of any one state.

In 1973, Congress passed a bill granting the city an elected mayor and legislature, though all laws and budgets still have to travel to the Capitol for a period of congressional review.

In July, President Obama said he supported statehood for D.C., his first expression of support for the cause.

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